Is It Time to Meet China Halfway?

May 12, 2015 Topic: China Region: Asia Tags: ChinaAsiaMeeting China Halfway

Is It Time to Meet China Halfway?

Book Excerpt: An important new work offers important ideas on how to defuse the emerging U.S.-China rivalry. 

Yet the Washington foreign policy establishment greeted the late 2014 summit with ample skepticism. As one representative commentary published a couple of weeks after the summit reflected, “The atmospherics were cordial, [but] there were no substantive changes . . . [regarding] any of the most neuralgic security issues driving strategic competition in the Asia-Pacific. China committed itself to nothing specific or binding. It is difficult not to think that China wants the appearance of peaceful rise, not the reality.” In this same piece from a commentator at a think tank closely aligned with the current administration, the author states, “We need to think through China’s strengths and vulnerabilities [and] determine our best points of leverage.” In the end, the author calls upon the “United States and its allies and partners . . . to think through the full panoply of countermeasures available to help fashion a concerted strategy for countering coercion.”10


A similar skepticism seemed to pervade Obama administration thinking in the lead-up to the November 2014 summit as it was publicly revealed that “Mr. Xi’s push for a ‘new type of great power relations’ . . . has clearly fallen out of favor with Mr. Obama and his aides.”11 Dismissing this phrasing altogether could have major negative consequences for this all-important relationship over the long term. In short, rejection of this concept may well imply to Chinese strategists that only Washington can develop overall concepts to govern the relationship, or worse: that Washington is quite comfortable with “new type” great power relations, even if that means rivalry and military conflict. These are the wrong messages to convey to Beijing and suggest that the relationship today is very far from set on a firm foundation, unfortunately. This book takes a different approach with the clear realization that one of the most basic principles of cooperation is the ability to listen and try to comprehend the other side’s ideas. Where the vision of “new-type major power relations” is presently lacking in specifics, this book has the considerable ambition to provide them in a forthright and succinct manner.

Relying on the evidence and ideas from a broad array of Chinese and American thinkers, this book seeks to provide the intellectual framework, in the form of concrete proposals, that is necessary to put this most vital of relationships on a solid footing for the twenty-first century and beyond. As such, the book, which surveys all major points of tension in the relationship—from currency practices to green technology development to the South China Sea issue—aspires to serve as a practitioner’s guide for a step-by-step strengthening of US-China relations.

Scholars are frequently reticent about making clear and specific prescriptions, preferring to emphasize positive description and value-neutral theorizing in order to answer puzzles in the study of international relations. This is often vital work, but the author’s experience in government and around decision makers reinforces the perception that what is required more urgently is the development of specific, actionable policy recommendations that are informed by rigorous political science analysis. In short, there is ample room for a normative treatment of US-China relations—that most critical of bilateral relationships to world order for the current century, and likely the ones that follow as well.

How to Respond to China’s Rise? The Debate

A major debate has been ongoing in Washington regarding how to respond to China’s rapid rise. Regrettably, US policy in Asia in recent years had seemed troublingly ad hoc and lacking a set of clear objectives, with accompanying resources and explicit bottom lines. Indeed, as one insider account of the ever-more-frequent crises in East Asia relates, “In reality, there’s no such thing as strategy. There are just a series of tactical decisions.”12 

The wide acceptance of the “rebalance to the Asia-Pacific” during the years 2011–12 seems to indicate the ascendance of those in the debate arguing that China’s influence needed to be balanced by that of the United States, not least in the military realm. Perhaps the most eloquent and logically argued of the exponents for a more forceful US approach in countering China is Aaron Friedberg and his book Contest for Supremacy (2012). This book has gained a major following in Washington because of the clarity of his argument and the specificity of his recommendations. Friedberg states emphatically that “China is too important to be left to the China hands,” suggesting that a “Shanghai coalition” made up of scholars and interests that receive material benefits or other “psychic rewards” from favoring engagement is “speeding the day when China will emerge as Asia’s preponderant power.”13 He concludes: “The ‘natural antagonism’ between a rising power and an established hegemonist has not been, and cannot easily be, extinguished. Nor can the ‘massive’ ideological differences between America and China be put aside.”14 Contemptuous of most attempts at cooperation with China, Friedberg warns, “Beijing wants to ease Washington’s anxieties and to dull its competitive reflexes, preventing or at least slowing a vigorous response to China’s growing power.”15 There are strengths and weaknesses to Friedberg’s important book. In the latter category, he seems to actually understate China’s growth in power. For example, he does not expect China’s economy to surpass that of the United States until midcentury, but most economists expect that event by 2020, if not before.16 As for strengths, his use of Chinese sources is impressive, especially because he is not a China expert.

A second virtue of Friedberg’s work, as suggested above, is that it proposes an actionable set of policy recommendations. With regard to economic policy, he makes the relatively uncontroversial suggestion that the United States must increase its savings rate, but he goes much further to also suggest that Washington should tighten its technology export controls as well as limit China’s role in the sensitive communications sector. Most of his policy recommendations relate to defense and deterrence, and the following list is not complete: disperse US forces and harden US bases; reinforce Chinese doubts about their own weapons and war plans; and develop and deploy long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicles, arsenal ships, stealthy intercontinental bombers, and long-range conventional missiles, because “modern wars are not won on the defensive.” Friedberg advocates that the United States prepare in earnest to undertake a blockade of China if necessary. On the diplomatic side, he says that, though “an Asian equivalent of NATO” is not feasible at present, a “community of Asian democracies” could effectively balance Chinese power.17

A comprehensive critique of Friedberg’s book is offered in chapter 12, but for now, we may simply observe that many of his policy recommendations are being realized in the form of the present “rebalancing to Asia,” as well as the related “Air–Sea Battle” strategy developed by the Pentagon. A window into the Obama administration’s China policy is provided by Jeffrey Bader’s account Obama and China’s Rise (2012). Interestingly, that book makes no mention of “rebalancing,” or of the so-called pivot to the Asia-Pacific region, or of the Air– Sea Battle strategy. Bader seems to call, above all, for “balance” in Washington’s China policy, and he warns against falling “into the classic security dilemma” with Beijing. However, he suggests that the Obama administration was perfectly prepared to “push back . . . [by] . . . throwing around a few elbows ourselves.”18 Overall, the account gives a somewhat disturbing impression of an administration seemingly more concerned with its image and avoiding criticism. Bader is proud to have stamped out any possibility of “excessive accommodation,” and he even crows about reining in the president’s campaign-trail penchant for intensifying engagement with former US adversaries in East Asia.19 Indeed, with the full flowering of the rebalancing and of the Air–Sea Battle strategy since Bader’s departure, it is quite clear that a major reason why the political right has apparently not jumped on the administration’s Asia-Pacific policy is that the Obama administration has in fact largely endorsed the program advocated by those seeking to balance against China’s rise.20

By contrast, the challenge of avoiding an escalation spiral toward the abyss of conflict in US-China relations will require a concerted and purposeful endeavor. The effort to propose a genuinely progressive alternative to current policies is, in large part, the purpose of the present book. Henry Kissinger’s On China offers a compelling vision of a cooperative future built on his deep understanding of Chinese strategic culture, which he developed over the course of decades as he interacted directly with Chinese leaders. His invocation of the 1907 Crowe Memorandum (an influential assessment of German aims and possible British responses that was written by a senior official in the British Foreign Office) is haunting:

The reader of the Crowe Memorandum cannot fail to notice that the specific examples of mutual hostility being cited were relatively trivial compared to the conclusions drawn from them. It was not what either side had already done that drove the rivalry. It was what they might do. . . . [Washington and Beijing] . . . need to ask themselves the question apparently never formally posed at the time of the Crowe Memorandum: Where will a conflict take us? Was there a lack of vision on all sides, which turned the operation of the equilibrium into a mechanical process, without assessing where the world would be if the maneuvering colossi missed a maneuver and collided?21